Monday, September 4, 2023

U.S. Labor Day is a Consolation Prize Working Class Holiday

Classic American Labor Day image--flag waving but inclusive.

Note—This is an updated version of an almost annual holiday blog post.

Today is officially Labor Day in the United States, a Federal Holiday celebrated on the first Monday of September since 1894.  For most people it is just the last hurrah of summer, an occasion for one last cookout and the gateway to fall and football season.  In most cities and towns, the labor movement is not even perfunctorily acknowledged.  The press mostly uses the occasion to annually either write the obituary of unions or to denounce them as powerful and greedy bullies, depending on the political inclination of the outlet.

While most of us working schlumps are grateful for the day off (if we get one), I for one, wish I could officially celebrate Labor Day with virtually the whole rest of the world on May 1.  International Labor Day was proclaimed by the Second International in honor of the memory of Chicagos Haymarket Martyrs at the suggestion of none other than American Federation of Labor (AFL) chief Samuel Gompers himself and which quickly spread around the world.  American unions celebrated it too.

But within just a few years Gompers was at the heart of a deal that substituted the September observance for May Day, a few crumbs from the Bosss table, and a pat on the head by the Civic Federation in exchange for a promise to oppose labor radicalism and the growth of industrial style unionism in rapidly expanding basic heavy and the extractive industriesmining, forestry, agriculture, etc.

The Eight Hour Day was the main demand of both the New York 1882 parade and the mass strikes of 1886 that led to the establishment of May First as International Labor Day.  But the demand was much older as shown in this photo of what is believed to have been the first Eight Hour banner by working men in 1856.

It is true that a September Labor Day observance pre-dated the 1886 Haymarket Affair.  In 1882 the New York Central Labor Union, made up of skilled craft unions belonging to a prototype of the AFL and lodges of the rival Knights of Labor cooperated in a call for a giant parade followed by picnics, games and amusements, and educational talks.  It was designed to showcase the pride and power of the labor movement and also to press for the chief demand of labor reformers—the Eight Hour Day—the same cause that would be marked by an attempted nationwide General Strike on May 1, 1886, an event that led up the attack by police on a workers rally in Chicagos Haymarket on May 4 and the bomb blast blamed on the mostly German and anarchist leaders of the local labor movement.

New York City officials, eager to appease workers after a number of local strikes were suppressed with violence, gave their official approval to the parade.  On September 5, 1882 an estimated 30,000 workers marched in military order behind elaborate banners representing local unions of all the trades, job shops, and Knights of Labor lodges.  It was an impressive display, but despite later claims by the AFL that observance of Labor Day spread quickly, only a few other cities, mostly in New York, began holding September celebrations. 

In the meantime, huge May Day parades and rallies spread across the country.  But the late 1880s and early 1890s were the beginning of a nearly 40 year period of virtual open class warfare with strikes being violently suppressed by local, state, and federal authorities, and armies of private goons and strikebreakers.  And workers often fought back with equal violence.  Episodes like the Homestead Steel Strike with its running gun battles between Pinkertons and workers, the nationwide Pullman Strike of 1882, and virtually continuous battles in the coal fields and hard rock mines nationwide, made many fear for revolution or civil war.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who ordered the Army to crush the Pullman Strike, wanted a symbolic peace offering to Labor without actually granting the movement any of its demands.  

                                            Early Labor Day was wrapped in patriotic symbolism.

Republican king pin Ohio Senator Marc Hanna, soon to anoint William McKinley as the next President, was even more ambitious—he proposed a pact of cooperation between capital and “responsible labor.”  He offered Gompers, the Cigar Rollers Union chief who headed the AFL, a seat in his new Civic Federation alongside the robber barons and captains of industry.  Hanna did not make the same offer to Grand Master Workman Terrance V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, who personally opposed strikes and advocated arbitration of disputes, because the members of Knights lodges included unskilled workers clamoring for recognition in heavy industry.  Gompers’s AFL would be allowed to pursue organizing skilled workers strictly by trade but not organize the great mass of unskilled, largely immigrant workers.  Gompers would also be called on to use his unions to oppose labor radicalism, and even to break strikes led by unions outside the grand agreement.

With Gompers in his pocket, Hanna engineered enough Republican support in Congress to get Cleveland’s official Labor Day proposal passed.  Cleveland signed it in to law just six days after Eugene V. Debss industrial union of railroad workers was smashed in the end of the Pullman Strike. 

Within a few years all states either aligned their existing Labor celebrations with the Federal holiday or enacted state proclamations echoing the U.S. call.  

Butchers march in a 1914 Labor Day Parade in Valparaiso,  Indiana.

Meanwhile authorities everywhere tried to suppress May Day observances, which continued to be supported by militant unionists and radicals of every sort—social democrats, anarchists, and Marxists.  The Knights of Labor withered away, but aggressive industrial unions, especially in the mining industry, continued to fight both the bosses and the AFL’s attempt to divide the aristocracy of labor from the mass rank and file.  In little more than a decade the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) would be formed to intensify that battle.

During the Depression and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats became the party of labor.   Labor Day became the official kick-off of Democratic election campaigns. Labor Day parades and rallies often seemed more of a platform to launch candidacies than a labor union celebration.

Even that has faded as the percentage of Americans in unions continued to shrink year after year after a high tide in the early ‘60’s.  By the Clinton era, Democrats continued to get support from labor, but seemed to try to disassociate themselves from it, shunning identification as the party for of labor in favor of being seen as the champion of the Middle Class.

A 2014 cartoon summed up the plight of American workers on Labor Day.  It has gotten worse.

As half-assed a holiday as Labor Day is, I hope we all will take a moment to thank the American Labor movement for largely creating that Middle Class.

Of late the organized labor movement has bestirred itself led by aggressive drives in the service industries including hospitality, fast food, and retail spurred by demands for a living minimum wage.  Public employees especially teachers and healthcare workers have also been militant and are extending their union representation.  Labor shortages in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic have given unions leverage not seen in decades.  It seems there are good things to celebrate this year.


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